Wildfire Academies Across the U.S.A.: Structural and Wildland Firefighters Training Together – Part 1

Nov. 1, 2003
Robert M. Winston begins this series on wildfire academies throughout the countries with a look at structural and wildland firefighters training together.
Many structural firefighters have asked me where they can obtain training for wildland and wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fire suppression. Today, the need for cross training to enable all firefighters to operate safely and effectively at wildland and W/UI fire incidents is an essential component of modern firefighting operations.
Photo by Robert M. Winston Structural firefighters attending this year's Colorado Wildfire Academy were taught basic wildland firefighting techniques, such as how to "limb up a tree," above, in a power saw class.

Without proper approved training, the firefighter and firefighting teams can be at great risk during the simplest wildland or W/UI fire. Those risks increase exponentially at the larger, more complex wildland and W/UI fires that have become more common across the country. During the very active fire season of 2002, more structural firefighters operated at large W/UI fires than ever before. That trend has been increasing over the years. The need for training the nation's firefighters to safely operate at these types of fires has also increased to meet those demands.

Wildfire academies are ideal settings where structural and wildland firefighters can join together to gain the required training to meet those demands. With the formation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there has been discussion related to "all-risk" national Type 1 Incident Management Teams (IMTs) to respond to large incidents that require complex logistical and tactical support. Training would be the backbone for firefighter qualifications in order to be a team member. Wildfire academies could become essential training partners on a national scale.

This article will provide information about major wildfire academies that are held annually at different times across the United States. Each wildfire academy has a unique regional personality. The numerous courses offered at these academies are approved by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) and taught by experienced, qualified firefighter instructors. The academies can produce many fully trained firefighters in a short period because many different courses are offered at one location over a one- to two-week time slot.

Photo by Robert M. Winston How to "cut line" in the basic wildfire class.

Not only do firefighter students learn the essentials of wildland and W/UI fire protection, they meet like minded individuals and forge new relationships at these academies. "Networking" and inter-agency cooperation are an important aspect of these academies and are strongly encouraged and fostered. All academies are run as an actual "event" and the incident command system (ICS) is initiated from start to demobilization ("demob") of the academy.

The point must be stressed that these academies are not only for wildland firefighters. Structural firefighters, whether they are career, volunteer, call, city, suburban or rural, are welcomed and encouraged to attend. Private contract firefighters are also attending in growing numbers.

Contact information with the locations and dates of the wildland academies is listed at the end of each academy's description.

Colorado Wildfire Academy. This is where it all began. It was June 2-8, 2003, that the 10th annual Colorado Wildfire Academy (CWA) was held at Adams State College in Alamosa, CO. The 10-year anniversary of this, the "granddaddy of all the wildfire academies," was celebrated. Nearly 1,000 firefighters from 33 states received training in 41 classes, including Basic Wildland Firefighting, Advanced Wildland Firefighting, Task Force/Engine Strike Team Leader, Wildland Fire Behavior, Fire Operations in the Wildland/Urban Interface, Air Operations and Computer Technical Specialist.

Photo by Robert M. Winston This year's Colorado Wildfire Academy was dedicated to the memory of Paul Gleason, a wildland firefighter, mentor and instructor who passed away this year. The photo shows Paul Gleason, right, doing what he loved to do best, working with fire, during a wildfire training class in Colorado.

An estimated $675,000 was pumped into the local economy of Alamosa as a direct result of spending by the Academy, its staff, instructors and the firefighter students. Structural firefighters represented 34% of attendees. Federal wildland agency firefighters represented 37% of attendees and state firefighters represented 15%. Private contractor firefighters represented 9%.

This academy stresses not only excellent training, but values safety, mutual respect for one another, building relationships, team building, and having a good time at the end of a day's studying or participating in a field exercise. Evening activities featured a fire apparatus parade down the main street culminating in a western style barbecue with live entertainment, a scavenger hunt, a firefighter's benefit golf tournament, and a banquet complete with door prizes and entertainment by the "Fiddlin Foresters." More than 30 vendors participated in the academy, offering fire equipment and providing most of the dozens of door prizes raffled off during the banquet.

VIP Day, held at the Monte Vista Airport, is open to firefighters, the news media, local and state government officials, and the public. Vendors display fire apparatus and equipment and provide live demonstrations of their products. This year, a firefighting air show demonstrated the use of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.

Photo by Robert M. Winston Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano addressed the Arizona Wildfire Academy staff and students before classes began.

This year's Colorado Wildfire Academy was dedicated to the memory of a wildland firefighter, mentor and instructor, Paul Gleason, who passed away this year at age 57. Devoting his career to firefighter safety, he developed the firefighter safety acronym LCES, which stands for Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety zones. He was a legend in the world of wildland firefighting and will be deeply missed.

The Colorado Wildfire Academy had its beginnings in the collective minds of several Colorado wildland agency people before the first academy was held in the Black Forest, near Colorado Springs. That first academy was held over three days in 1994 and consisted of five classes attended by just over 100 firefighter students. A commercial helicopter and its pilot donated their time and a rope-rescue class was also held. Steve Hart of the Colorado State Forest Service and a Type 1 incident commander, was one of the founding fathers of what has become the top wildfire academy in the nation.

This academy has steadily grown in size and complexity to the point where it requires an IMT to run it efficiently. In 1996, a Type 2 IMT was in place along with assigned trainees and a full-time coordinator, Wendy Fischer, was hired to keep the operations running smoothly. The Great Plains Wildfire College (GPWC) was established as a "spin-off" of the Colorado academy. Structural firefighter students outnumbered the wildland firefighters in 1999, the same year that a firefighter's benefit fund was established within the academy. And, in 2001, the academy became international with the participation of firefighters from Canada and Mexico. The Colorado Wildfire Academy became a national model for other academies and other wildfire academies became established over the years.

"I believe the need for wildland firefighter training for all firefighters will continue; therefore, we will continue to offer courses at both the CWA and the Great Plains Wildfire College," Fischer said. "There has been discussion about locating the CWA and the GPWC in one location and maybe build a training facility dedicated to this type of training. If that were to come to pass, then we would be offering training on a year round basis instead of two separate academies. We will see what transpires. The quality and integrity of both academies will continue as we offer the most up-to-date courses to all firefighters."

The next Colorado Wildfire Academy is scheduled to take place June 7-13, 2004, in Glenwood, Springs, CO. The 10-year anniversary of the line-of-duty deaths of 14 wildland firefighters on Storm King Mountain, in the Glenwood Springs area, will be remembered during this academy. Information can be obtained by contacting Fischer at 719-589-3138, by e-mail at [email protected] or via the website www.cowildfireacademy.com. The Great Plains Wildfire College is scheduled to be held Jan. 7-11, 2004. Contact Fischer for additional information about the college.

Arizona Wildfire Academy. During the past several years, there had been much discussion among Arizona fire service personnel relative to developing a true wildland fire-training academy. The Arizona State Fire Training Committee (ASFTC) took a hard look into this possible endeavor. The record-breaking wildfire season of 2002 together with the Rodeo/Chediski Fire in Arizona brought about the impetus that culminated in the inaugural Arizona Wildfire Academy (AZWA) March 11-16, 2003. The need to cross-train structural and wildland firefighters and to get the structural firefighters qualified and Red Carded was obvious. In addition, the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association is developing a statewide mutual aid plan and when that system is activated, there will be a need for qualified firefighters to assist throughout the state. The AZWA was, in great part, an answer to those training requirements.

Photo by Robert M. Winston The staff and instructors of the inaugural Arizona Wildfire Academy pose on the steps of the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. The academy was held from March 11 to 16 to cross-train structural and wildland firefighters.

Support for implementing the AZWA came from the ASFTC, Arizona Department of Emergency Management, Arizona Fire Chiefs Association, Ponderosa Advisory Council, Arizona Fire Districts Association, Prescott Area Wildland Urban Interface Commission and the staff of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, to name but a few supporting agencies. Kori C. Kirkpatrick is the AZWA coordinator and Summit Fire District Fire Chief Don Howard is its incident commander. Direct support came from area fire departments, i.e., the Prescott Fire Department, Central Yavapai Fire District, Summit Fire Department and Prescott National Forest, part of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).

Many people who desired to see that the inaugural AZWA succeed expended a great deal of time, effort and cooperation. And, it was a huge success. Approximately 400 certificates of course completions were handed out to students attending 16 classes. No other wildfire academy has had such a high first-time attendance. Another first was the Forest Health Summit that was held by Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano at the AZWA site the day before the academy began. She officially kicked off the AZWA at the academy mixer.

Structural and wildland firefighters from across the country attended the AZWA and a vendor from Quebec was there too.

Tom "Jersey" Fox, a cross-trained wildland firefighter employed by the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, said, "I was a little apprehensive about attending the inaugural Arizona Wildfire Academy. Soon after my arrival, I was made to feel at home with fellow firefighters. We are a family. Whether we are from the NJFFS, BLM (Bureau of Land Management), USFS, a contractor, a career or a volunteer, structural or wildland firefighter, we train together and we respond as one. With the vision, desire and a lot of hard work, the AZWA came to fruition. Upon completion of their courses, the men and women firefighter students came away with a sense of accomplishment and much more. It is at the AZWA that friendships were made as well as knowledge gained that made us better firefighters. In my opinion and that of so many others, the AZWA was a rousing success and my thanks to all involved. Well done!"

Photo by Robert M. Winston Firefighter students learn how to make and apply Class A foam during the Arizona Wildfire Academy.

Kirkpatrick said, "I had never coordinated an academy before. I was really excited about it. Other wildfire academy coordinators and I met and they gave me tremendous support and direction. They told me that I should travel to other academies and learn the ropes. So, that is what I did. As far as the AZWA is concerned, it was a huge success. It turned out better than the staff or I thought it would. The staff and the instructors were terrific. These were fire people that knew how to use the incident command system and that helped to make the AZWA work very well. The funding, to run the AZWA, came from many sources and especially from the Arizona Department of Emergency Management. The AZWA was needed and we all pitched in to accomplish our objectives and goals. I am so proud of all that helped and I was amazed at all the work that was done, much of it as volunteer time."

Howard added, "While the academy is directed toward all wildland firefighters, we have made special considerations to the rural structural fire departments, many of which are volunteers. The collaborative effort of interagency cooperation between the wildland agencies and the structural fire departments is one of the greater strengths of this academy. The excellent success of this, the first Arizona Wildfire Academy, was due to the wonderful relationships that we have with people. We are all brothers and sisters in the fire services and I hope that in some small way our academy can help to bring all firefighters closer together and to have a greater appreciation for what each other does whether structure or wildland."

The next Arizona Wildfire Academy is scheduled to be held March 15-21, 2004, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott. Contact Kirkpatrick at [email protected]. A website is scheduled to be available soon.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a retired Boston Fire Department district fire chief. He is a wildland/urban interface and structural fire service presenter and adjunct college instructor. Winston can be contacted at 928-541-9215 or e-mail: [email protected].

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